An Interview with Arnab Chakrabarty: Sarod Maestro and teacher

Arnab Sarod Maestro and Teacher
Arnab Chakrabarty: Sarod Maestro

Arnab Chakrabarty widely acknowledged as a virtuoso of the Indian classical Sarod. Arnab also plays the Sursringar, a close cousin of the Sarode, sometimes referred to as a “bass Sarode”.

Chakrabarty is a disciple of Dr. Kalyan Mukherjea (1943-2010), a first-rate mathematician and Sarod musician.

Chakrabarty has represented India at scores of music festivals in the US, Europe, and West Asia, and has also performed extensively in India. His Sarod can also be heard in the soundtrack of the Oscar winning film, Born Into Brothels(2004).

Dr. Vishaal Bhat of caught up with the maestro a week prior to India‘s Republic day. This is what Arnab had to say!

Vishaal Bhat for ManipalBlog: A little about your background. You were a colleague at school and had been in the science section. When and how did the shift to performing arts take place?

Arnab Chakrabarty: It was never really a shift. I had been a pretty serious student of music all along, but in our school days, I might have been a little shy of being very public about it. It probably had something to do with the fact that the rest of our peer group was heavily influenced by pop culture, and I feared that I might end up a social reject if I made my efforts in classical music too visible.

Moreover, I had never managed more than a ‘C’ in Music, which was a part of our school curriculum, possibly due to the fact that I was internally repulsed by the quality of content that we were being taught – mostly awful sounding patriotic songs.

Manipal Blog: Tell us about your initiation into music and training in this art form?

Arnab With Guruji
Arnab Chakrabarty with Pandit Yashwantbuwa Joshi

Arnab Chakrabarty: I think my involvement in music started around the same age that I was learning how to speak. This is largely due to the fact that my mother was a student of Hindustani vocal music and there was always music playing at home. On my birthdays, much before I was tall enough to reach the shelf on which the record player was kept, I was given LP records of Ali Akbar Khan, D V Paluskar, and Amir Khan by my parents.

At a formal level, I was bought a tabla set when I was three, and my lessons (tabla and vocal) commenced soon thereafter. However, my parents wanted me to learn some stringed instruments, so it was a choice between the sitar and the sarod. And my mother chose the sarod for me. I don’t think I was really involved in this decision.

My first sarod teacher was Pandit Brij Narayan of Bombay, a pupil of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the legendary sarod maestro. My second teacher was Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta, from whom I learned how to negotiate the technical challenges of the sarod. But the most profound influence on my music was that of my third and last sarod teacher, Prof. Kalyan Mukherjea (1943-2010), who is better known for his work as a mathematician, but he was one of the finest sarod musicians I have ever heard.

These last two teachers, Pt. Das Gupta and Prof. Mukherjea were both disciples of a legendary figure in sarod music, Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra (1917-1981). In a stylistic and pedagogic sense, this lineage of musicians (although mostly not connected by bloodline) is known as the Shahjahanpur Gharana. It is so named after the town of Shahjahanpur in northwestern Uttar Pradesh, which was the home town of Ustad Murad Ali Khan (c. 1848-1910), the progenitor of this style of sarod music.

Other than the above, eight years of constant collaboration with an extraordinary sitar player, Vinayak Chittar, of Bombay, has helped me think better and more clearly about music. Vocal training and sporadic guidance from the legendary Gwalior Gharana vocal maestro, Pt. Yashwantbuwa Joshi has also helped my musical vision. He is truly one of the last of the stalwarts active today.

Manipal Blog:  As a musician what kind of fitness regimen do you follow?

Arnab Chakrabarty: Well, keeping my limbs out of harm’s way is the first step, I guess. I do lots of finger stretches and work out with light weights (lighter weights, more repetitions). Light cardiovascular exercise such as running helps me achieve breath control, which is very important in music. The importance of stretching can never be overemphasized. I also try to build some good habits into my practice regime, such as allowing my muscles enough time to recover after a strenuous practice workout, especially when teaching my hands to do something new.

I used to enjoy a good 2-3 km swim at one point, but then it stopped some time ago after I moved back to India from the US. Now that I live in Hungary where public pools are abundant, I really should get back to swimming.

Manipal Blog: What does music mean to you? What is your ultimate goal?

arnab vinayak Concert
Arnab Chakrabarty with Vinayak at a Concert

Arnab Chakrabarty: If I had figured out what music means to me, I would probably have stagnated and stopped practicing. 🙂 Clearly, music is important to me, but I don’t know how to even try to dodge that cliche! As for my ultimate goal, I have even less of an idea, to be honest with you.

But I think my current goals are pretty well-defined. I want to be able to continue my work of extending the tonal canvas of my music and by extension that of the sarod. I also hope that my project of attempting to rationalize the design of this traditional instrument based purely on acoustic and ergonomic considerations will continue for the foreseeable future.

And if I am to give you an honest analysis of myself, I think I sound original because I am an apt assimilator. I listen extensively, and I certainly listen more than I perform. One of my goals is to accumulate a library of techniques that subsumes all the masters of the sarod – early and modern – and use these tools to create music that has flavors of all the great masters of Hindustani music.

Manipal Blog:  According to you, what are the qualities required for a great artist?

Arnab Chakrabarty: That is a question I am totally under-equipped to answer. I would have to be a great artist first before I even start to think of this. But I can surely say that to be a reasonably good musician with talents as modest as mine takes a lot of grit, hard work, and the ability to accept criticism and to turn the harshest words of one’s worst critics into good advice.

Manipal Blog:  I’ve heard that many of the maestros have a spiritual approach towards their music. What is your approach? Do you believe music connects with a Higher being?

Arnab Chakrabarty: I am yet to encounter any evidence of there being a Higher being. According to the information accessible to humans, we are as close as organisms get to be a ‘higher’ being. We are as responsible for the marvels of civilization as we are for the misery that exists alongside.

My approach to music involves three things: study, reasoning, and practice. If you are an honest musician, you will let your students be your teachers and turn your life into a laboratory, just as any honest scientist would.

Speaking of my approach to the music per se, here are a few rules I live by:

  1. Make your instrument as user-friendly as possible.
  2. Never compromise on the logic and syntax of ragas and do not try to scam your listeners by taking random, syntaxless scales and giving them new names, trying to pass them off as ragas. One need not take unreasonable liberties with form in order to produce aesthetically beautiful music.
  3. Teach whatever little you know without holding back – returns on that investment are massive, especially in terms of your own learning curve.

Manipal Blog:  Have you ever found a contradiction between your approach to music and the compulsions of how you remain a successful musician in this global marketplace?

Arnab Sarod Maestro 1 and Teacher
All photos taken from the official site:

Arnab Chakrabarty: No, I don’t, because I only work on my own terms. I am prepared to go months without a concert if I am uncomfortable with any aspect of what is expected of me at a concert venue or the venue itself. So in that sense, I am not cut out to be the venue-hopping, globe-trotting sort of musician because I place much more emphasis on my responsibilities as a traditional musician and the musical values I have arrived upon and inherited.

Manipal Blog: Could you say a few words about your approach to innovation in your music? I couldn’t help noticing you handing out a few tips to fellow musicians on fine-tuning their instruments.

Arnab Chakrabarty: Innovation in traditional music is welcome when it augments the quality of existing ideas and values. It is like taking a very good operating system and adding more functionality and aesthetic elements to it. But if one tries to replace a good OS with a bad one just because all the good programmers have left the company, mere packaging does not, and will never cut it.

Of course, there is always wide scope for improvement even in an established paradigm, and I think that Hindustani music will become more rigorous and its life-expectancy will receive a boost if the roles of performers, teachers, coaches, academics, and critics are well-defined. I have nothing against an intersection of all the above in extraordinary individuals, but there needs to be better peer review and quality control. Only if this happens will true innovation stand out.

Bringing all the practical information on Hindustani music and its instruments into the public domain is the only way to ensure that we build a discerning audience for this music, keep it alive, and keep our “maestros” accountable and on their toes. Freely sharing whatever little I know is a step in that direction.

Manipal Blog: Music has been transformed so much by technology in recent times. The Small Business Blog lists places where you can buy followers for your Soundcloud! What has that meant to your music and the way you view music?

Arnab Chakrabarty: For me, technological advances mean advances in recording and in the ability of musical instruments to translate musical thoughts into music. From that point of view, technological advances will always help the musician. Greater computing power will also mean better means to analyze music, and possibly evolve more effective pedagogies.

I can speak for myself. But for YouTube and Soundcloud, I would be nowhere. The cost of access to traditional media of dissemination was prohibitive for a middle-class youth like me with no connections in the world of professional music. Technology, in that sense, is a great leveler, and I am grateful to Google, Facebook, and YouTube for making discerning markets accessible to me.

Manipal Blog: Which are the countries to which you have traveled for performances?

Arnab Chakrabarty: The US, UK, Canada, almost all of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The last time I counted, it was 33 countries overall. Fortunately for me, my travel is not constant, but in spurts.

Manipal Blog: Which are the places you will be performing next? Any chances of performing in the tiny town of Manipal?

Arnab Chakrabarty: I am performing in Toledo and Madrid, Spain this weekend, and then in Paris and Valence, France, and then again next week in Valladolid, Spain. Then I’ll play in New Delhi on the 17th of February and in Chennai the week after.

I’ve never encountered a request to perform in Manipal, but given how frequently I visit Chennai, I would love to perform there if there is an opportunity.

Manipal Blog: Can you single out any special experience that has left an impact on your career?

Arnab Chakrabarty: Being denied opportunities to work and to prove myself because I do not belong to the special bloodlines that dominate Indian classical music. And, more rejection on account of refusing to dance to the tune of tabla players, who have the maximum economic agency in today’s Hindustani music marketplace. But thanks to the easy flow of information via the Internet, my audience finds me, rather than I had to look for them! 🙂

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